Wine experts? We have our place
I wasn’t going to write about this study when I first read about it 2 weeks ago. My first impression was that it was really stupid, and didn’t seem worth writing about. But it’s gained a lot of traction, not just in wine blogs but the national media and overseas as well. So it’s time to add my two cents.
To summarize the study: “Wine experts’ recommendations are of no use to most drinkers because their [i.e. 'most drinkers'] palates are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle flavours,” as the subhead of The Telegraph [London] put it. “The fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” explained one of the study’s authors, John Hayes, which surely is incontrovertible. But then he extrapolated from that a statement that is wildly misleading, and fails to grasp the essential truth of why people listen to experts in the first place: “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”
Hayes may be a college professor, but he doesn’t understand the role of experts in a complex consumer culture. The consumer is overwhelmed with choice. Want bread? A hundred brands. A car? Scores of manufacturers and models. A DVD player? Smart phone? Even salt now comes in a range of colors and salinity. Going to the movies this Saturday night? There’s probably 50 different flicks playing within ten miles of my house. And don’t even get me started about wine. Thousands of bonded wineries in the U.S. alone, not to mention imports, and most of those wineries produce a whole bunch of different wines, sometimes even of the same variety.
This is where experts come in. Experts are modern-day America’s gurus, shamans and soothsayers. We read the entrails of the slain beast and interpret them. This isn’t in a religious or spiritual sense, obviously; but the first humans “invented” priests because they needed somebody to interpret the vast, confusing world around them and help guide them through it. Religion evolved from that.
If the world of our primitive ancestors was confusing, ours is beyond confusing. So we too have “priests” to help us get through without falling or failing or getting hurt or (in this case) spending money on junk. We read or listen to film critics we trust because we don’t want to shell out ten bucks on a piece of crap. (At least, I don’t.) We trust restaurant critics because if we’re going to eat out, we want to be as assured as we can be in advance that we’re going to like the place. And, Mr. Hayes, people listen to wine critics because they want and need all the help they can get in making that selection.
The reason we trust critics, be they film, restaurant or wine, is precisely because “their fundamental ability is different.” Duh! If an expert’s ability in his or her field isn’t different and better than everybody else’s, he wouldn’t be much of an expert, would he? And nobody would listen to him. So to say that “We shouldn’t be listening to a wine critic’s recommendations because his ability is different from ours” not only misses the entire point, it’s beyond dumb.
I like smart people and unlike some politicians these days I don’t think it’s snobby to go to college. But I do think that some of the “studies” I hear coming out of our institutions of higher education are pretty weird. There’s also a phenomenon in the news business where, if you put out a study, chances are it’s going to get a lot of articles written about it. News organizations have an insatiable appetite for content. I’m sure Professor Hayes knew his study would be spread around the English-speaking world for 15 minutes or so. Fine, but I would hate to think that anyone is going to take home the implied message that “A study proves that the evaluations of experts are meaningless and their word is no better than yours or anyone else’s.” That’s true in the strict moral sense (you’re entitled to your beliefs) but it’s not true if you think that a non-expert’s evaluation of a wine is as good as an expert’s. It’s not. We do live in a culture that increasingly questions the concept of “expert” as elitist, and to some extent I share that view. But when it comes to things like movies, cars, restaurants and electronic toys, I want and need guidance when I spend my hard-earned cash. I know I’m not an expert in those things and I respect the opinions of people who are. And the public should trust the opinions of people who write about wine. Well, some wine writers, anyway; not all.